I just finished reading The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender. It is the story of her experience as a Jew in Poland when the Germans invaded and the Jews were persecuted, imprisoned, enslaved and many were killed. (The Holocaust) She was 13 when it happened. She lost all of her possessions and family, except for three siblings whom her mother sent out of the country before the Germans invaded Poland. It is a really touching story and begs the question, “How can people change so quickly?” Her neighbours turned against her, taking her stove, her fur coats…etc.” They did this calmly, telling her not to worry because she and her children wouldn’t be there long. These were their lifelong friends! How does this type of persecution happen? It seemed to happen because people did what they could to save themselves. The only people that survived did so because someone was willing to put themselves at risk in order to save them. I wonder how many people in our society would be willing to risk themselves for another? Could a holocaust happen again? I think it could happen again, to any race, religion or “other”.
Another aspect of prejudice and oppression that came clear through this book is how the Nazis were able to dehumanize the Jews. First, they took one of the Jew’s symbols, the star of David, and legislated that all Jews wear the yellow star. This differentiated them from other Europeans. Prejudice happens here in North America by racial differentiation, the colour of skin. Once the Jews were singled out, it became dangerous to give them jobs, or associate with them in any way. They were forced to walk in the gutters only. (Similar to segregation in the states.) The Germans gave Jews five minutes to evacuate their homes. They could only take a handful of possessions. Then, the other citizens were given their homes. They forced the Jews into ghetto’s. (Like our Reserves?) From there, they were forced into labour camps, herded and shipped like cattle. The Jews were given numbers and told not to use their names, another dehumanizing effort. (Our First Nations had their children removed and put into boarding schools where they laboured and were not allowed to use their own language or name–similar tactics!)
What saved the author’s life was her ability to feel and to express those feelings through writing. The Nazi guards thought they had killed all feeling in the Jews, that the only thing Jews thought about was getting bread to feed their hunger–like animals–completely dehumanized. (Similar to how we talk about animals who have just been hunted–“he didn’t feel a thing” we tell ourselves.) The author’s poetry became a source of inspiration both to the guards and fellow inmates. Our ability to feel is our humanity. The author’s ability to feel, even though all her feelings were of suffering, grief, loss, fear and anger, saved her life–a blessing and a curse. Feelings are our common human experience, binding us together as one, no matter what race, religion, or status.